Book Review

Julia Koets’s titular poem gives us twelve different understandings of the word “Pine,” among them: “to want without seeing . . . to suffer with Eros . . . what is holy . . . to wilt with loss.” The collection’s speaker experiences the entire spectrum of pining; part one, “Potentiality,” follows her through childhood, first loves, and homophobia in the deep South, while part two, “Ephemera,” trails her through adulthood and her tumultuous relationships. Pine’s straightforward, narrative structure will appeal to readers who aren’t as experienced in poetry, but that in no way takes away from Koets’s robust emotional range or her masterful display of received and free forms, bracing imagery, and delicate intimacy reminiscent of Anne Carson’s translations of Sappho.

There are two primary motifs in the collection, seemingly at odds with one another: technology and nature. Perhaps they hint at the disparity the speaker feels between her lesbian and Southern identities; perhaps they hint at nature and nurture, or the transformation encapsulated in both natural and technological processes and the ways in which these two entities must intertwine in order to thrive. The collection begins with a kind of personal and scientific interpellation: attempting to name one’s own difference and desire in “The Science of _____.” Koets writes, “One day we will study _____ like we study / flight or photography . . . Two girls / in a field test the science of buttons. / Their shirts soon break into yellow blooms.” She shows us the many sciences that never had a name before being discovered, suggesting that, with time, each new discovery and difference becomes accepted and celebrated. Attraction and adolescence become their own science as the two girls begin to “bloom.”

As beautifully as Koets describes innocence and intimacy in Pine, she’s also deft in describing the fear and pain of knowing the speaker is one ill-concealed secret away from violence: “Cirrus clouds slide smooth / as razors across that throat of sky” and “If I could measure our fear in cups, / I could fill every pool in town” and “We tricked ourselves (foolish innocence) // into thinking we could want without consequence . . . Fear made us biblical, animal, unsensed.” The fear never fully disappears, even though it changes form later in the collection. In the beginning, there is a sense of powerlessness, a parallelism of adolescent girl and cornered prey between brief moments of reprieve. Later in the collection, that fear moves away from society, but toward the strained relationship the speaker has with other women; the pain comes from the inside, rather than the outside. In “Moon Prayer,” intimate moments also anticipate pain:

Tonight the moon lies on its back:
a thin, white spine. I count each vertebra
of the woman next to me in bed,
map her lumbar curvature:

each bone : a moon : a linear diagram
down her back. In this parable
in which I am an astronomer
the night sky is a body capable of holding
what may not survive our atmosphere.

Oh god of well-made darkness,
let us not forget how prayers have been cruel,
how the moon has been misconstrued
for a knife glinting in the dark.

The narrator is an astronomer, a protector, someone who becomes “the night sky . . . capable of holding / what may not survive in our atmosphere.” Even as an astronomer, holding the moon in her bed tonight, there is a fear that she’s misconstrued her as “a knife glinting in the dark” reminding of us the clouds that she too perceives “as razors across that throat.”

The standout quartet of poems all titled “Antlery” builds on the highs and lows of a relationship with the extended metaphor of antlers branching and breaking: “Antlers depend on the length of daylight / I keep my mind on the sun’s height.” The poems are deftly written villanelles, their repetition and rhyme scheme so natural that I didn’t realize their formal structure until I reread them; they reminded of poets like Kiki Petrosino or Paisley Rekdal, who don’t shy away from received forms either. The “Antleries” is a collection within a collection that invited me to study the nuances of their miniature narrative.

Koets finds her niche among lesbian poets and ecopoets alike, creating a captivating ecosystem of words in her newest collection. While the collection dwells on childhood pain and internalized homophobia, there is still hope and joyful intimacy to be found within its pages. In “A Love Poem to Sally Ride,” the first American woman and lesbian in space, Koets writes:

If wormholes really existed, I’d go back
to when the nerves inside your body glowed

electric with fear; I’d tell that twelve-year-old you . . .

. . . People are changing, Sally,

the way comets aren’t constant objects, but
celestial happenings, always in flux.

When you flew to the moon, you gave me
a lunar amulet—not a pearl or locket, but satellite.

Sally, I’d give you a coterie of moons.

In this beautiful moment, there’s a slippage between the poet and her muse. Koets recalls grasping onto an electric fence as a child, hoping to see the horses. Sally Ride glows “electric with fear.” When Koets writes, “I’d tell that twelve-year-old you . . . People are changing” it feels just as much that she is speaking to herself.

About the Reviewer

C. E. Janecek is a Czech-American writer, poetry MFA candidate at Colorado State University, and assistant managing editor at Colorado Review. Janecek’s writing has appeared in Lammergeier, Peach Mag, Permafrost, and the Florida Review, among others. Instagram @c.e.writespoems.